WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court suggested Tuesday that it will strike down U.S. cities' outright bans on handguns, a ruling that could establish a nationwide ownership right sought by gun advocates. But the justices indicated less severe limits could survive, continuing disputes over the "right to keep and bear arms."
Chicago-area residents who want handguns for protection in their homes are asking the court to extend its 2008 decision in support of gun rights in Washington, D.C., to state and local laws.
Such a ruling would firmly establish a right that has been the subject of politically charged and often fierce debate for decades. But it also would ensure years of legal challenges to sort out exactly which restrictions may stand and which must fall.
Indeed, the outcome of the Washington lawsuit in 2008 already has spawned hundreds of court challenges, including one in Massachusetts over a state law requiring gun owners to lock weapons in t heir homes.
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Two years ago, the court announced that the Constitution's Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess guns, at least for self-defense in the home.
That ruling applied only to federal laws and struck down a ban on handguns and trigger lock requirement for other guns in Washington, a city with unique federal status. At the same time, the court was careful not to cast doubt on other regulations of firearms.
The court already has said that most of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights serve as a check on state and local laws. Still, "states have substantial latitude and ample authority to impose reasonable regulations," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was among the majority in the 2008 decision.
"Why can't we do the same thing with firearms?" he asked.
The justices themselves acknowledged that only through future lawsuits would the precise contours of the constitutional gun right be established. "We haven't said anything about what the content of the Second Amendment is beyond what was said in Heller," Chief Justice John Roberts said, using the name of the Washington resident who challenged the city's ban.
Roberts and the four other justices who made up the majority in the Washington case remain on the court, so it would not be a surprise to see them extend the Second Amendment's reach to the states.